Monday, November 29, 2010

Land of the Snakes

For the past two years, I've been fortunate enough to make trips to the Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois for the annual fall snake migration that goes on at and in the vicinity of Snake Road. This year I was fortunate enough to make two separate trips on the first and third weekends of October and managed to turn up some cool stuff. A few members of the CMU herp club and I drove through the night and set up camp by 2 AM local time and were up and ready to go early the next day. We met up with Peter Berg, his son Raymond, Marty Whalin,and several others for the day. One species that had eluded me in Illinois for sometime was the Black Kingsnake. We headed over to a tinsite in the early morning and flipped a few sheets and turned up two of these beauties.

Black Kingsnake - Lampropeltis getula nigra

After spending a good amount of time photographing the two Kings, me moved over to Snake Road to spend the rest of the day herping. We got the usual smattering of Cottonmouths. A lot of people consider Cottons to be a trash snake, however I've always found them interesting and they're one of my favorite North American pitvipers.

 Western Cottonmouth - Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma

We saw a Black Rat Snake, Rough Green Snake, and Ribbon Snakes throughout the rest of the day, but for the most part things were pretty quiet. We headed back to camp and were up early once again the next morning. One of the coolest things from the trip was finding an Eastern Box Turtle right in the campground we were staying at.

 Eastern Box Turtle - Terrapene carolina carolina

For Snake Road standards, this weekend was pretty slow. However I did pick up a lifer with the Kingsnakes. A few weeks later I returned with good friends Chris and Matt and met up with Dylan from HWD. I arrived at Snake Road by myself and waited for others to arrive by walking the road a bit. My first snake, was of course a Cottonmouth found crossing Snake Road around one in the afternoon.

Western Cottonmouth - Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma

About an hour later, Dylan & his girlfriend Amanda arrived gave me a buzz that they were near the south end of Snake Road, so I decided to walk the bluffs on my way back to them. As I was walking along the bluffs, I noticed this large Cottonmouth that was coiled in a large crevice in the bluff wall.

A little farther up the bluffs, I noticed a snake ahead of me that was pretty dark in color. From a distance I figured it was another cottonmouth out on the move. But as I moved closer to it, it didn't look quite right for it to be a cottonmouth. As I stood next to hit, the snake began to hiss loudly and spread its neck light a cobra and I couldn't believe my eyes.

Eastern Hognose Snake - Heterodon platirhinos

This species of snake has eluded me for a long time and the only one I had ever seen in my lifetime was near Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan when I was 12-13 years of age. For the past few years I've put in lots of time in Michigan for them and have come up empty handed time and time again. So for me, this find was real special. The snake hooded and hissed for a few minutes and eventually I decided to poke it and see if it would go into its textbook "playing dead" routine. I touched the snake and it immediately turned over, writhed about wildly on its back with its tongue sticking out and played dead. It layed motionless for a long time and then if I'd moved away it would turn its head rightside up to see if the coast was clear. It did this several times over the course of 20 minutes and made for a great photographing opporunity.

Finding the Hognose made the trip well worth it and everything from there on out was icing on the cake. I called Dylan & Amanda and they came up to where I was and spent some time photographing the snake. Things were slow after that snake-wise, so we decided to be on the lookout for the amphibian species in the area and we managed to spot a few.

Cave Salamander - Eurycea lucifuga 

Green Tree Frog - Hyla cinerea

Bird-voiced Tree Frog - Hyla avivoca

We spotted a few Ribbon Snakes out, but nothing much more. As we were leaving the north end of the road, we noticed a large dark shape that was the unmistakeable shape of a large Cottonmouth fresh out of the swamp laying in the road. We ran up to it and managed to snap some really nice shots of it in the late afternoon sun.

Western Cottonmouth - Agkistrodon piscivorus leucostoma

I had to leave by noon the next day, but we decided to flip some tin in the early morning at an abandoned barn nearby. We flipped another nice Kingsnake and for me it was a great way to close the trip.

Black Kingsnake - Lampropeltis getula nigra

Until next year, happy herping!